Why Our Brains Need a Style Guide


“Man, that’s my style!”

That’s what Neil Young replied when the producer of “Tears Are Not Enough”* asked Young to sing his line again because the producer thought it was a little flat.

The New York Times is considering changing its practice of using courtesy titles on second reference. It may no longer be “Mr. Trump,” “Ms. Clinton,” or “Dr. Carson.” This may not matter much to the general public, but it is a really big deal for journalists, writers, and even Times subscribers. Why? Because it is a huge style change.

Why is it important to have style guidelines, and should we come up with our own?

Much of the information we process when we read is subliminal. Because of this, writers need to be aware of their grammar, organization, punctuation, and style to make reading effortless. The brain will stop and raise an alarm when it hits inconsistencies.

Style guides are there to ensure consistency. The Associated Press tells writers how to spell email or how to use certain punctuation. An article on email that has it appearing as email half the time and e-mail the other half will make your brain grumpy. Your brain will notice and will tell your subconscious “Hey, this is different!”  every time.

Your brain gets accustomed to all sorts of things when you read specific periodicals, like the Times, regularly. You may not notice courtesy titles or fonts, but your brain does. It expects these things. When they suddenly appear different, your brain may suffer a crisis of authenticity. That’s a huge bump in your reading road.

Writers follow style guides to make life easier for the reader. However, established styles – AP, Chicago Manual of Style, Modern Language Institute, and American Psychological Association among the biggies – may not address the particular impression or “brand” an organization is shooting for. A consistent brand is vital to set expectations for the reader.

The New York Times uses courtesy titles on second reference to exude more formality in its content. It gives an old-fashioned impression that the newspaper is a staunch chronicle of history in the making, something that sets it apart from USA Today.

A business may not want to be that formal in its publications. It might ditch last names altogether in a blog post and use first names in order to provide a friendlier, more informal setting on which to base relationships with customers or clients.

A style guide can be created or adapted for the individual’s or organization’s “brand.” But the magic for the reader’s brain will always be consistency.


*a 1985 effort by Canadian musicians to raise money for a famine in Ethiopia


The Case of the Oxford Comma

The early morning mist swirled around Detective Grammar Smith’s legs as she made her way up the steps of the sprawling veranda to the massive front door. She had been summoned to Anthology Acres, the home of dot-com millionaire Fiver Essay and his wife, Paragraph. It was all about a comma.

“This way, detective,” an ancient question mark showed her into a comfortable but richly decorated parlor. “Can I get you something to drink while you wait?”

“No, thanks.”

Grammar looked around. Everything seemed to be in order, but when she looked out of the large picture window, she could see commas working in the garden and furtively glancing up at the house. Something was making them nervous.

When Fiver and Paragraph, who seemed to be inseparable, finally made it to the parlor, Smith got right down to business.

“We hired an Oxford comma,” Fiver explained. “We thought it would be useful to have an educated comma on the staff, and we put him to work in the library.”

“Then a week ago, he disappeared,” Paragraph finished the story. “We looked all over, but he was gone!”

“Are there coordinating conjunctions employed here?”

“Yes.” Fiver was a bit sheepish. “We try to give them a chance to rehabilitate themselves.”

Grammar interviewed And and Or who worked on the Essay estate.

“I don’t know what happened to the little bugger,” And snarled. “He just didn’t show to pick up that last noun. I had nothing to do with it, copper!”

Unfortunately, the Essay incident was not an isolated case. Grammar had a serious serial comma disappearance problem. She checked with Chicago, MLA, and APA who all agreed the missing commas were a dilemma. AP declared it was all a non-issue.

When a sentence has a series of three or more nouns, phrases, or clauses, a comma often appears at the end of the last element and before the coordinating conjunction. This helps avoid confusion.

Grammar looked high, low, and everywhere in between. Grammar interviewed conjunctions, they proclaimed their innocence, and the case went nowhere. She could continue the search, pass the problem to someone else, or ignore the whole thing.

The Associated Press Stylebook is one major reference that eliminates the last comma before the conjunction.

“News people, always trying to save some space!” Grammar mused, frustrated.

Finally, Grammar tracked down the Essays’ missing comma. It was on a beach in Jamaica bumming around with other Oxford commas.

“Bloody writers!” it declared. “They never can decide if they want us or not!”